The traditional dwelling of the nomadic Mongolian is the Ger, known as a yurt in Central Asia. This is a round felt-covered tent with a single room in which the family lives, eats and sleeps. It is made from a wooden latticed wall and poled roof with a central stove for warmth and cooking. As the focal-point of Mongolian life it is consequently the focus of many customs.
What is a nomadic family ? Visiting Mongolia without entering Ger-Yurt and having conversation with nomadic family is incomplete. Nomads are very hospitable and happy to welcome visitors. However it will be more interesting experience if you have an interpreter with you or speak some Mongolian. Most Mongolians will be interested in your life and beliefs and so it is frustrating for both parties not to be able to communicate.
If you are riding a horse, you should not approach the ger at anything faster than a walk or you could be in for a nasty fall — horses can become a little uneasy near gers. It is rude to canter too close to a ger.
Jeeps should be parked at a respectful distance, and should not get in the way of any animals or obscure the hitching post or door.
When walking up to a ger it is customary to call out “Nokhoi Khor” which literally means “Hold the dog”. Considering how vicious some countryside dogs are, this is a useful phrase to remember.
It is usual in Mongolia to walk directly into a ger without knocking and offer the greeting “sain-bain-ou?” which means “are you well?”. You will probably receive a response of -sain, sain ban ou” (I am fine, are you well?).
You should enter a ger with your right foot first: it is considered impolite to step on the threshold of the door. Traditionally, the most respected member of the family, or a highly regarded visitor sits at the back of the ger, close to the family shrine. You should avoid going directly to the back of the ger unless the host insists. Rather, you should sit close to the door, on the left. The head of the family will usually usher you further into the ger, into a more respected position. Sit on the floor, unless you are invited to sit on one of the beds. If a stool is offered, smile and accept.
You should not attempt to ask any questions or enter into a conversation with the host until they speak to you. This will usually occur after you have been offered a drink and some food. Generally this is milk tea and a selection of dairy products. If you are offered tea, accept it and drink at least some of it, as it is considered rude not to respect your host’s hospitality. Food and drink will be offered to the person at the back of the ger (the most respected person) first and then sequentially towards the door.
Whenever you accept anything, such as a snuff bottle (see opposite) you should collect it with your right hand outstretched, facing up, and your left hand holding your right elbow. After you have finished your bowl of tea, it is acceptable to say that you are full or that as a foreigner you find it difficult to eat Mongolian food. However, you should sample a little of each of the products that are offered to you. It is much more polite to enjoy at least some of what is offered than to refuse it.
After you have begun to drink your tea, your host will probably ask something along the lines of “why are you here, and what are your intentions in Mongolia?”, at this point you can begin your conversation. Most local people are delighted to speak to foreigners, wishing to hear about your lifestyle, and about events going on in the world. They are also keen to talk about theirs.
Certain topics of conversation should be avoided, however, including questions that are personal, such as whether a woman wishes to have more children (children are a spiritual gift) or the number of livestock a family has (this is a measure of wealth). After you have finished your conversation, it is polite to leave some form of gift with the host to repay them for their hospitality.
In general, money does not make a good gift, so leave something personal like postcards from your country, Polaroid photographs and sweets are all thoughtful tokens. It is however impolite to take photographs without asking. Many Mongolians dislike tourists taking photographs of them or their children without warning. However, they are usually delighted if you do take their photograph, provided you will then send copies back to them.
Photographs and paintings of family members are usually found in the family shrine at the back of the ger. If you are a particularly honoured guest, the family may open a bottle of `arkhi’ (Mongolian vodka), or `shimiin arkhi’, a kind of vodka distilled from milk. The host will put on a hat and roll down his sleeves. You should do the same, or at least feign the motion of doing so.
A small cup will be passed to you and you should drink as much as you are able. If you do not like vodka, accept the cup and just put it to your lips without drinking. This is perfectly accept-able, but refusing vodka altogether is impolite. You should then pass the cup back to the host, who will refill it, and pass it to the next person. Do not pass the cup to the next person, unless you are specifically told to do so by the host. This will continue around the group, generally until everyone has had three shots of vodka.
Some local people live in wooden cabins during the summer months. The layout of these is different for each family and may not resemble a ger, If you are not sure where to sit_ it is best to try to sit close to the stove, whereupon your host will probably indicate a more suitable position.